From gay liberation to marriage equality: A political lesson to be learnt

Published date01 July 2018
Date01 July 2018
AuthorMariano Croce
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
European Journal of Political Theory
2018, Vol. 17(3) 280–299
From gay liberation to
! The Author(s) 2015
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marriage equality: A political
DOI: 10.1177/1474885115581425
lesson to be learnt
Mariano Croce
FWO Pegasus Marie Curie Fellow Centre for Law and
Cosmopolitan Values, University of Antwerp, Belgium
This article deals with the issue of resignification to advance a hypothesis on the way in
which social practices are transformed with recourse to the language of institutions.
It first discusses the transition from gay liberation to same-sex marriage equality by
exploring the trajectory of homosexuals’ rights claims. The article continues by provid-
ing a theoretical interpretation of what brought this shift about, that is, what the author
calls a movement ‘from the street to the court’: in both civil law and common law
jurisdictions, legal means are increasingly being used by individuals and groups to make
their claims audible to political institutions and to society at large. Then, an analysis is
offered of the shape that social struggles take when socio-political claims are articulated
with recourse to the legal language. The conclusion is that reliance on the law as a
device to achieve political goals and construct same-sex group identity risks producing
but a feeble resignification of the conventional heterosexual matrix. In light of that, a
more effective way to defy this matrix is to create awareness of what is gained and what
gets lost in becoming legally visible.
liberationism, judicialisation, resignification, rights claims, same-sex marriage
The issue of same-sex marriage equality today is at the centre stage of the political
debate. Whether in civil partnerships or conventional marriage, unions between
persons of the same sex are now legally regulated in most European countries and
States in the US, while other jurisdictions seem well on the way to removing legal
Corresponding author:
Mariano Croce, University of Antwerp, Venusstraat 23, Antwerp 2000, Belgium.

impediments to them. According to the advocates of marriage equality, legal rec-
ognition for sexual minorities challenges the norms of heterosexuality that still
dominate Western societies and confers on gays and lesbians a set of symbolic
and material benef‌its that make them fully equal (see e.g. Calhoun, 2000; Cox,
2014). On the contrary, queer and radical theorists criticise recent legal develop-
ments, for they claim that the revision of social values and legal norms about
homosexuality are reasserting conventional ideals about proper kinship relations
(see e.g. Auchmuty, 2004; Barker, 2013). Whether or not critics are right, and
whether or not legal recognition is inadvertently being detrimental to homosexuals
themselves, there is no doubt that in the last four decades something in the battles
for sexual equality has profoundly changed. It is this change that this article sets
out to investigate. More precisely, I will seek to identify the proper background
against which this change should be read.
I will portray the transition from gay liberation to marriage equality as the
symptom of a major alteration in the way citizens of liberal states f‌ight their pol-
itical battles. I will make the claim that one of the major traits of this change is that
today’s social and political struggles of marginalised and excluded minorities are
unable to connect to each other (as it used to be the case before the 1980s). My
main concern will be with of‌fering a theoretical hypothesis on what brought this
shift about. I will contend that one of the key factors is what I will call a movement
‘from the street to the court’. In ef‌fect, one of the key spheres where social struggles
are carried out today is the legal f‌ield. In both civil law and common law jurisdic-
tions, the most recent legal reforms in state policies on family have been prompted
by legal victories for same-sex marriage advocates. I will look at the ef‌fects that
taking social and political battles into courts produces on the claims lying behind
these battles.
To set the stage for this analysis, I will delve into the topic of resignif‌ication,
which is to say, the def‌iant use of language that challenges the hegemonic symbolic
universe and, when successful, proves a powerful instrument of socio-cultural and
political change. In ef‌fect, not only according to its whole-hearted supporters,1
marriage equality represents an obvious case of resignif‌ication, whereby marriage
ceases to signify the legally recognised relationship between a man and a woman.
As a result, the web of meanings and references conjured up by the term ‘marriage’
today is hardly the same as a few decades ago. Apparently, the disruption of the
binary male/female has successfully resignif‌ied one of the most relevant institutions
of Western civilisation. Whether this has happened or not, I will claim that the
ongoing resignif‌ication of marriage in the juridico-political context of today’s
liberal states does not imply def‌iance and subversion, but assimilation and integra-
tion. In arguing so, I will illustrate why institutional resignif‌ication – abundantly
debated by critical theorists and queer authors – cannot be equated with resigni-
f‌ication that originates from within the social realm, one that is triggered by
‘unauthorised’ speech acts.
Based on a particular view of how the law permits the transformation of social
practices and confers recognition on previously marginalised subjects and groups,
I will claim that institutional resignif‌ication tends to be inherently conservative.

European Journal of Political Theory 17(3)
For it promotes a politics of cultural units that reif‌ies social identities and rein-
forces conventional narratives. The article concludes by saying that the fragmen-
tation of political activism favours the achievement of limited goals and thus
prevents marginalised subjects and groups from engaging in more coordinated
struggles against multiple sources of inequality.
Putting in context or undoing the context?
In an acute analysis of resignif‌ication and its conditions of possibility, Moya Lloyd
(2007) points out some of the shortcomings of Judith Butler’s view of how the
def‌iant use of hegemonic language can, thanks to the iterability of meanings,2
subvert the hegemonic discourse and confer speakability on abject, wretched,
excluded subjectivities. Lloyd articulates a few misgivings about the (alleged)
free-f‌loating power of words to assume new meanings when marginalised individ-
uals confront the hierarchy of respectable discourses and endow their own speech
with a self-assigned authority. The point Lloyd makes is that to account for
the impact of resignif‌icatory practices, the analysis of the role and dynamics of
language and social meanings is hardly enough. What is needed is, f‌irst, a
more careful scrutiny of the historical conditions of possibility that allow resigni-
f‌ication to succeed, and, second, an inquiry into the collective context of political
engagement where the speech act assumes its overall signif‌icance. To support
her critical reading, Lloyd revisits the example of Rosa Parks – mentioned
by Butler – to demonstrate that Parks’ successful act of def‌iance must be read
against the broader backdrop of the organised political struggles taken up by the
African-American Civil Rights Movement. In other words, the key to resignif‌ica-
tion can be found not so much in language as in the social context where language
is used.
In this framework, Lloyd underlines that Butler’s overestimation of iterability in
the language of everyday life leads her to be too suspicious of the of‌f‌icial language
of the state. Famously, Butler takes stance against the regulation of hate speech
because, in her account, hate speech is what the state says it is. If hate speech is
regulated and publicly censored, the force of iteration is hindered and the injury
connected to the prohibited speech gets even reinforced. Transformative iterability,
so to speak, would be legally thwarted, because, paradoxically, injurious speech
and its of‌fensive force would be enshrined in law. Lloyd continues by saying that
this view of the language of of‌f‌icial institutions does not do justice to the potentially
innovative and subversive use of state law. The idea that the state and its institu-
tions already-and-always perform acts of censorship and objectif‌ication neglects
that of‌f‌icial state language itself is enmeshed in an ongoing process of iteration.
What the state iterates can be as conservative as it can be progressive. Lloyd claims
that one should be able to identify what the state is iterating if one wants to assess
the conservative or progressive character of state policies and judicial rulings.
Again, she maintains, it is the context that qualif‌ies the iteration and the societal
dynamics that make iteration have such and such ef‌fects on both social reality and
the political system.

Lloyd’s insistence on the ‘historicity’ of def‌iant language uses and the need to
pay due heed to the socio-political background recalls Pierre Bourdieu’s criticism
according to which philosophers and linguists wrongly believe they can f‌ind in
language what, in reality, lies in the social realm and its power positions. For
Bourdieu (1991: 111), philosophers and linguists stubbornly strive to look for the
power of performative utterances...

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